Achieving a Natural Looking HDR in Nik HDR Efex Pro 2
Today I am going to take you through the steps that I use to achieve a natural looking HDR for that “As the eye sees” look that I desire in an image. Everyone has their tastes when it comes to HDR and this happens to be mine. But while it’s a natural look it’s one that people struggle with most. It seems it’s pretty easy to get a painterly or grunged up effect but trying to get something that that look Photographic and not Graphic is a tougher road (Thanks to Joe Buissink for that line, I was captivated watching him on Creative Live today).
I think a lot of it comes down to trying to do too much. Even the software manufacturers have a hard time with this. In talking to the folks at Nik, it is a struggle to decide what to include in software and what to leave out. It’s a delicate balance.
I tend to err on the side of less is more and here’s why; when you give people a lot of options, they think they need to use them all. It’s like giving someone inexperienced, a rack full of spices and telling them to cook. They will probably overdo it because they think they need to. When really that delicate piece of fish just needed salt, pepper and a little garlic (always garlic I’m Italian).
But the other side of the coin is, when you do want a more Graphic looks, when you are going for the grunge, you may actually need more controls because as you go further towards the graphic side it introduces more artifacts that you need to counteract and you need the controls to do so.
So since we all don’t have one taste, we all don’t like the same food. The software manufacturers need to give more controls than one person with one taste may need.
I’m here to tell you what spices to use.
So let me take you through my steps to get a natural look. The image I will be working with is an image I shot at my favorite place to shoot,WindNsea Beach in La Jolla, California. It’s a simple 3 exposure +- 2EV shot, taken 15 minutes past sunset in the “Blue Hour” so the dynamics are not super high but high enough not to be able to get in one exposure.
Here are the 3 exposures
After merging, the file which was easy because it was shot on a tripod and also because of the greater aligning abilities of HDR Efex Pro 2, I opened them in the tone-mapping screen. The image is dull and pretty lifeless at this point. As opposed to how I work in Photomatix. I first am going to work on the tonality of the image before I work on the HDR effects. I can go back to them as I need but I want to establish a good tonal range first. This is very important to a natural image since grunge effects seem to be very midtoned and we want to avoid that. We want a white – white and a black – black and even midtones.
I 1st brought up the contrast to get rid of some of the initial flatness. I also brought up the shadows and the highlights a tad. For making these adjustments I use my eyes but I also use the histogram. I want to see the range of tone move to both ends of the display without clipping at either ends. Now knowing when this was shot helps me a bit in knowing how the histogram should look, the center group of tones is slightly to the left and that’s fine. It’s not midday or a bright scene. If it was and my histogram looked like this it may mean I need to up the exposure control a bit. There are not a lot of highlights in the histogram but neither was there in the scene.
This is why I feel it is important for me to edit an HDR as soon after I have shot it so that I can remember how the scene looked to my eyes
I then added some structure just to bring out some of the cloud detail better in the sky. Again I may want to dial this back further later. Structure is a control you need to use gingerly (there’s those spices again) As much as I want a natural look I want to use a little Structure to bring out detail because I honestly believe it’s something cameras do NOT get right as I have talked about before. Adding some structure add some edge contrast to bring out areas that need that to look better than normal photography but too much and you’ve been taken over by the grunge side. I used 20%
I increased Saturation quite a bit but may need to pull that back later. I tend to go for a saturated look or actually I should say my clients do
At this point now I will go to the HDR section and again, I leave most of it alone. I do work with tone compression and I bring that up, after all that the basis of tone mapping. In this image I brought it up to about 50%
I will go through some of the other settings, (The 3 D’s) Depth, Drama and Detail but if they don’t make a difference for the better, I don’t change them. Seriously, leave them alone for a natural look. Nik went after a natural looking HDR and the factory settings achieve that look.
By now I have almost all that I want in the image but I’m going to use one more section, The Graduated Filter. At first I was like, Why did they include that but then I thought Duh, don’t you many times add a curves adjustment layer later in Photoshop and then just mask it to the sky to further refine the sky to foreground balance? Well using this tool I no longer need to do that. I applied the Graduated filter and just brought down the top exposure by -.37EV
And this brings the image to just about where I want.
Next I will finalize the image in either Lightroom or Photoshop; in this case, I used Photoshop. I like to finish an image always in these programs because quite frankly they can do things an HDR program was never designed for and also if I decide I want to push the image further in some direction, I can do so in a non-destructive manner in Lightroom or Photoshop using Layers. Some times when we push an image we may introduce some nasties into it like noise or moiré and if we do this in the HDR program we have to go back and go through the whole merge process again and I just am too impatient for that.
So in this case I brought the image into Photoshop and I first cloned out a few sensor spots using the spot healing tool. I felt the tonal balance was great so I left it alone. I found it had just a bit of noise so a quick run through Nik Define 2.0 took care of that and finally just to bring out the detail in the rocks and the sand so you get the feeling you could run your toes through it, I ran it through Nik Sharpener Pro 3.0. And my image was done.
Here’s the final result
I feel the colors are lifelike and true. The shadows are there – I think that is something people leave out in an HDR, is an actual black shadow area thinking everything has to be brought up to a midtone. To our eyes at the time there are areas that are totally dark so why would we not want that in the image? The highlight areas are as they were; they weren’t perfectly bright because it was dusk so if I pushed them to be it would have lost the look that was there at the time. You can see the effect of the afterglow on the houses in the background and the foreground sand. That’s how I remember it, it is “As the eye sees” but of course, they are MY eyes not yours
Hope that helps